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What happens when a fit journo trains with the Lions?

Michael Whiting joins training AFL Reporter Michael Whiting joined the Lions running drills this morning to get a taste of pre-season training and give some pointers to the team.

Rocking up to Brisbane's pre-season training base at Yeronga on a Monday morning, I was a bit hesitant at how the next few hours would unfold.

In the early stages of the Lions' third pre-season under the Chris Fagan regime, footy boss David Noble had asked the previous week if I was interested to come and do a running session with the team.

In my early to mid 20s I was a state-level 1500m runner and even as I've aged it's a huge part of my life. I coach a squad of semi-elite middle and long-distance runners at the University of Queensland.

I jumped at the chance.

How hard do they really work? How good are they? How do they lift each other when the going gets tough? Have individuals improved? Who sets standards? Which players are working on what?

So many questions and now I was getting a rare chance to be among the group.

I approached their session from a runner's perspective.

So here I was, just after 7am on Monday morning sitting in a small room at AFLQ's headquarters in Yeronga with 30-odd Lions players, Dayne Zorko and recruit Jarryd Lyons among them, decked out in Lions training gear, as Noble explained my presence to the room, telling players that I could report anything I saw or heard during the session and that nothing was 'off the record'.  

I’ve been covering the Lions and the Suns for AFL Media for seven years and have interviewed and critiqued almost every player in the room at one point or another over their careers. In a sense, the tables had turned. 

Head of development and training coordinator Scott Borlace ran through the session outline and Lyons was introduced to raucous applause ahead of his first session with his new team.

Ben Hudson informed everyone my nickname for the day had been changed from 'Fish' to 'Horse'.

There was no particular reason for this, other than being part of a footy team meant you had to be assigned a nickname, not come in with your own, Hudson joked.

Not surprisingly it got plenty of laughs and probably eased any anxiety I had in stepping onto the players' turf.

The players split into four groups to discuss the session with either a development or line coach.

Zorko – back a week early – reinforced the need to train with a purpose, to work on an area to improve, whether it be agility for giant teenager Connor Ballenden or ground ball gathers for Harris Andrews. There should be no going through the motions.

The session was this:
  •  4x3min run efforts with 2mins recovery
  • 45mins of football drills – these were broken up into 3-6min drills and involved everything from ground balls to four-on-two small sided handball games to overlap running and hitting targets both short and long.
  • 6x300m run efforts with 2mins recovery
  • 6x100m strides

It was 27 degrees and not overly humid, the boundary line was marked extensively with spray-paint indicating different distances. The players are told by high performance manager Damien Austin to attack their first rep. He is in charge of the running.

A number of support staff are assigned a group of players each who will report back with the distance they've covered in each rep.

The goal is simple – get as far as you can every rep.

The players organise themselves into groups – as small as four and as large as 10 – of similar ability and are set off in those groups five seconds apart.

I plonked myself in the first group with Jarrod Berry, Hugh McCluggage, Ben Keays, Ryan Bastinac, Toby Wooller and Cedric Cox. With the club's best runner Nick Robertson jogging laps on the comeback from toe surgery, these guys make the core of the endurance kings.

They take off – quickly. Like most runners, I'm conditioned to run at an even pace, but if I do that here I'll be spat out the back. The first lap (about 425m) is quicker than I'd like but I've tacked on and finish the first three-minute effort in the group.

I'm running at about 95 percent of my maximum effort, somewhere just over three minutes per kilometre, closer to 3.10.

If the runners I coach did a similar session (they might do 6x1km repeats), they'd run at a similar perceived effort, 95 percent.

Michael Whiting held his own in the gruelling session.

Just like the first rep, Berry takes control in the second. The group starts to splinter about half-way, and it's just me and the young midfielder finishing together.

Another rep of 930m – not too bad on an uneven oval with little 'straight' to find rhythm.

In the two-minute recovery, staff hand out water bottles full of iced water. Berry gives me his once he's finished. Two reps down.

No one puts their hands on their knees. That's a massive no-no in Austin's regime and would result in punishment for the entire group.

The third and fourth reps are hard work and most of that front group is now well and truly fragmented and fighting their own battles. Not one player dropped their head, not one player whinged about how tired they were and not one player complained about the heat.

'Fish' breaks away from the main group.

My ears were pricked for those things. Not as a "gotcha", but in a group of 30-odd athletes, it's not unreasonable for some to verbalise their internal struggles.

At this stage of the session, they're a very positive group.

Rhys Mathieson has improved his running markedly in three seasons. And he has to keep doing so. Brisbane has recruited Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lyons and will almost certainly take a talented midfielder with pick number 18 in the upcoming NAB AFL Draft.

These players are after his spot.

Mathieson is a great personality. In the front half of the pack, he's one of the loudest voices on the field, but also as I learnt, one of the most inquisitive. After our third rep he was asking how he should attack his fourth. 

"I think if I go out too slow I won't be able to make it up in the second lap," he says.

 

Personally, I think some of the players would benefit from being a fraction more conservative early in the session and ensuring they finish reps three and four just as strong as their first two.

But I have to applaud the aggression. They are ambitious and bullish and really put it on the line.

Berry tells me it's a big step forward on what he did seven days earlier, so that's a win.

Cam Rayner looks buggered. It's no secret he's not a great runner and after a terrific 22-game first season – a fact that's undersold – he's back for pre-season number two.

"You can't enjoy coming here for three-minute efforts?" I ask.

In 12 months of covering Rayner, I've almost never seen him not smiling. Even now he can still crack that cheeky grin. "I don't love it, but you've just gotta grind it out."

He's near the back of the pack and needs to improve a lot, but his attitude to strengthen this weakness could not be better.

Whiting watches on as the players do a skills session. 

I'm quite impressed by the running as a whole. With most of these young men at the infancy of their professional careers, their bodies need time, another pre-season or two, before they will be properly ‘elite’but the hunger, positivity and improvement over the past couple of years is first class.

As they break into groups to attack the drills, this is a chance for me to talk to Noble about different players and different focuses for the next few months.

As the first rotation finishes there's an emphasis on charging from station to station and then getting a drink – not slumping after a drill to catch their breath and then rotating.

It's a little thing from the outside, but a big thing from the inside.

Players only drink water. There's no sign of gels or nutrition – it's probably not a long enough session for that. Gatorades are available once the entire session is complete.

Noble tells me to watch Eric Hipwood. The exciting forward has a habit of taking his eye off the play for a split second and missing the chance to lead after a turnover. It's something he needs to train. So, the 21-year-old is asked to keep an eye on an assistant coach in every single drill, whether he's coming at the ball, running back to position or seemingly out of the action. This keeps him engaged and his eye constantly on the action.

Mid-drill Mathieson takes off after strategy coach Danny Daly who has the Sherrin tucked under his arm and recapturing some bygone youth.

Mathieson is one of three Lions – Corey Lyons and Jacob Allison the others – who are learning to transition better from offence to defence.

Rhys Mathieson has a well-earned drink. Picture: @BrisbaneLions Twitter

There's no question these three are pushed the hardest all day. My legs were still jaded from the three-minute efforts and these three were being asked to repeatedly sprint 50-70m after an assistant coach until they caught them.

With the drills done it was time to put the running shoes back on and get stuck into some 300s.

I settled into a group with Zorko, Bastinac, Ryan Lester, Darcy Gardiner and Corey Lyons.

Like the three-minute reps, they get out fast. This stuff tests me but I manage to stick with the boys as they tick off a 51-second effort.

Midfield coach Dale Tapping fires a handball at me: "you too, Fish," he says.

At the end of every rep, assistant coaches deliver quick handballs to weary players. They have to respond in an instant or wear it in the midriff.

Again, the groups are set off five seconds apart with players at roughly the same ability.

Reps have barely been finished for 15 seconds and players quickly encourage each other ahead of the next effort. Zorko is an Energizer Bunny. I'm taken by how enthusiastic he is and how much he talks. He speaks to players as individuals and not a collective whole. "C'mon Witho, finish it off. Your turn to lead Froggy (Lester), get us out hard."

Berry is chatty, Matt Eagles can be heard, Alex Witherden is cheeky, even when he's knackered. The coaches encourage, and Austin's voice is a constant, but I'm surprised at just how player-driven things are.

The coaches are dotted around the boundary shouting encouragement and firing the handballs between reps, but it's the players that get each other through the session.

They're young, but they don't need a kick up the bum to get going as the session wears on, which surprises me.

As we churn through the reps, there's a bit of carnage late in the session. Some guys are really struggling on numbers five and six, but no one complains.

Hipwood finds a sprint in his last 50m when he can barely lift his knees.

Everyone low-fives after the final effort and prepares for the 100m strides to finish.

Marcus Adams and Lincoln McCarthy say hi even though I've never met them. It's a little thing to them, but big to me. I'm a journalist with no right to be there, but the Lions have a good feeling among their group that is infectious.

So, that's that – a pre-season session in the books.

Before I leave and get back to my laptop, Keays thanks me on behalf of the playing group as they gather in a circle. The 21-year-old is a fringe midfielder but still feels empowered enough to take the reins and speak on behalf of his teammates.

How this translates to football we'll find out in four months, but the attitude and appetite to improve is right where it should be.

 

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs